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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Historical recognition not an easy road

by Greg Harton | September 11, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

What days of remembrance we find ourselves in.

On this Sunday, we remember a sunny September Tuesday 21 years ago when the skies of two American cities were darkened by the rising smoke of death and destruction. It was a tragedy unlike any ever endured by this country, wrought by those whose values equate violence with political disagreement.

We, like the rest of the world, are also remembering the woman who, for 70 years, reigned as the British monarch. In the days ahead, her nation will mourn her death and celebrate her life, even as it embraces its new king. Queen Elizabeth II's kingdom will mark her passing in official ceremonies, but remembrances will differ in ways as numerous as there are people.

Everyone has their own sensibilities when it comes to remembrances. In personal terms, we've each formed our own criteria for people worthy of our personal tributes. Perhaps it's a president, like Lincoln or FDR or Reagan or Obama, whose personal characteristics and, perhaps, timing, represent something special. Or it might be a celebrity, whether Elvis or Whitney Houston.

Personally, we devote energy to remembering special teachers or mentors in our lives who, for others, mean very little. Perhaps it's a coach -- a Frank Broyles or a Nolan Richardson.

It gets much harder, I think, when we start trying to figure out the people we collectively want to recognize in some formal way. There are always so many pros and cons.

I went to Wilbur D. Mills High School in Little Rock. Mills was a powerful Arkansas congressman in the House of Representatives for 38 years. He was a strong influence in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and many other programs, including interstate highways, benefiting the nation to this day. He was also an alcoholic who was famously involved in a public incident when a stripper known as Fanne Foxe leapt from his vehicle, which had been stopped by police in Washington, and jumped into the capital city's Tidal Basin. He, along with all of Arkansas' delegates to D.C., also signed the famed Southern Manifesto that opposed racial integration of public places.

His name adorns a dam, a courts building, a library, multiple streets, parks, a campground. If you've driven in Little Rock very much, you've probably driven on the Wilbur D. Mills Freeway.

It's doubtful anyone today would campaign to name anything after Mills. Should it be removed, as we've seen some suggest with his contemporary, Sen. J. William Fulbright, from the places it has adorned for decades?

It's a huge challenge for communities to balance longstanding recognition of major contributors to the state's development and history against today's admirable push to recognize others whose contributions have been ignored for less-than-admirable reasons, including racism.

Fayetteville is in the midst of debate over recognizing Nelson Hackett's story. He was enslaved in Fayetteville. His escape led to an international conflict that established Canada as a sanctuary for those escaping slavery. There appears to be a unanimous desire to have his story highlighted in Fayetteville, thanks to the work of the Black Heritage Preservation Commission.

Advocates for naming a street after Hackett pursued that goal by asking the city to repeal the 70-year-old naming of a major street as Archibald Yell Boulevard. He's one of Fayetteville's founding historical figures and the state's second governor. He also signed a letter asking for Hackett's return to Arkansas to face criminal charges.

The City Council faces a choice between two meaningful historical figures, a situation that could have been avoided, suggesting those who came up with the idea to raise the profile of Hackett's name saw a need to also diminish Archibald Yell's within Fayetteville.

It's up to the City Council to figure out how Fayetteville can best serve the town's fascinating history.

Print Headline: Historical recognitions not simple


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